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Montana’s Tester Takes to the Sewer – And Gets a New York Beat Down

Jon Tester had been playing Tester’s game. And winning. Now he’s playing Trump’s game.
by Matthew Monforton Read Profile arrow_right_alt

When Georgie, the hapless lad in Stephen King’s IT, tried to retrieve his paper boat from a storm drain, he was clueless about the depths of the sewer and the malevolence of the red-haired clown lurking therein. Once he learned of the dangers, he was willing to give his right arm, literally, to avoid it.

By contrast, Sen. Jon Tester (D-MT) is swimming in a sewer he eagerly, and foolishly, jumped into last week. Pennywise is an amateur compared to the orange-haired clown now in Tester’s face. Just ask Lyin’ Ted, who was accused of being the son of a JFK conspirator. Or Ben the Molester. Or Horseface Carly.

And those were Donald Trump’s fellow Republicans.

Montana Democrats are accustomed to having the sewer to themselves, like the time when they dispatched a Republican senate candidate with what Salon called “one of the most homophobic ads in American history.” But now, instead of facing an allegedly gay hairdresser, or the usual eunuch from the MTGOP’s flaccid establishment, Montana Democrats are up against an opponent who’s spent four decades shanking his enemies on the pages of New York tabloids.

That Trump’s attacks are often unsubstantiated means nothing to his voters. They instead see, for the first time in their lives, a Republican routinely taking the fight to his opponents. They’re thrilled.

No one thinks of Tester as one of the sharper tools in the shed. But he rarely makes unforced errors. And Team Tester seemed to recognize, as recently as a month ago, that survival in a state Trump won by 20 points means flipping some of his voters or, at the very least, avoiding stunts that would motivate them to show up at the polls. Which is why Tester had been running ads chock full of veterans, cops, and fireman commending his Trump-signed bills and highlighting Tester’s encounter with a meat grinder that left him disfigured — albeit not as impressively as Georgie.

But Tester changed course last month when Troy Downing, a wealthy Californian masquerading as a Montana senate candidate, ran an ad belittling Tester as an “elementary school music teacher.” A more disciplined incumbent would have ignored Downing’s juvenile ad, especially in light of Downing’s impending criminal trial for defrauding the state when he posed as a Montanan in order to obtain a discount on state hunting licenses.

But Downing’s ad got under Tester’s skin. Within days, Tester responded with an ad angrily denouncing Washington which ended with Tester bizarrely grunting that “you DAMN right I approved this message.”

The attitude carried over into last week, as Tester the chest-thumper took to CNN to shred Admiral Ronny Jackson, Trump’s appointee to head the Veterans Administration. Tester referred to Jackson as “candy man” for giving drugs to passengers during long flights and accused him of various acts of drunken misconduct. Tester did this when other news outlets had refused to publish the allegations against Jackson because they were unverified.

Jackson promptly withdrew his nomination. Trump responded by blasting Tester, on Twitter, of course. Then Fox News. Then at a rally this weekend in Michigan, where he had this to say:

Tester started throwing out things that he’s heard. Well I know things about Tester that I could say, too. And if I said them, he’d never be elected again.

That has opened the door to all kinds of speculation about what those “things” might be. Like this, for example.

Tester’s supporters can claim that some Republicans who were also uneasy about Jackson and that his abrupt withdrawal raises suspicions. Indeed, Erick made those same points yesterday.

But Trump now has a martyr, which is often more valuable in politics than a short-term victory, and Tester now has a problem. By using allegations from unidentified sources to cut down an admiral, a Montana farmer has signed up for a knife fight in a sewer against a ruthless clown who plays by New York rules.

Tester’s best strategy for re-election was to avoid Trump’s eye the way savvier red-state Democrats such as Heidi Heitkamp (D-ND) and Joe Manchin (D-WV) have done. That strategy is now out the window. Trump has been relentlessly broadcasting accusations, like this one a few hours ago, to a huge bloc of Montana supporters who, before last week, weren’t all that motivated to vote in an election in which Trump’s name wasn’t on the ballot. Tester’s journey into Trump’s sewer may prove to be a career-ending error.

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